“The Chateau Marmont is where starlets go to sleep with their directors. The Garden of Allah is where girls who want to be starlets go to sleep with guys who want to be directors.” – Billy Wilkerson
That is my favorite line in indie writer Martin Turnbull’s novel The Garden on Sunset (you can get a free copy at his website Here).
The Garden On Sunset is the first book in a series that chronicles Old Hollywood through the eyes of people that live at The Garden of Allah Hotel. If you don’t know about the Garden it was a safe haven in Old Hollywood that people would go to party, drink booze, have sex, and do drugs basically without any repercussions (To read more about the Garden Click Here).
The novel begins in 1927 with the Garden’s first night in business and spans close to a decade via the experiences of three young adults who all have aspiring dreams which led them to this now infamous hotel.
Marcus Adler is a guy from Western Pennsylvania that wants to be a screenwriter. He’s also gay and was basically disowned by his father because of it. He heads to Hollywood to find a movie star that that came to visit him in the hospital when he was a kid.
Kathryn Massey has parental problems of her own; her mother dragged her all over Hollywood from studio to studio throughout her entire adolescence. Kathryn had two major hurdles that she was unable to overcome while chasing her mother’s Hollywood dreams: a lack of talent and mediocre looks. She wants to be a journalist, which isn’t an easy job for a girl to get in 1930.
The last character was the star of the book, for me. Gwendolyn Brick is a crafty, wily, and great-looking girl from Hollywood, Florida that wants to be an actress and comes up with harebrained scheme after harebrained scheme to make it happen. Her chapters remind me of movies like 42nd Street and The Gold Diggers of 1933. She’s got some parental demons in her past too.
The book details the trials and tribulations of these characters as try to make it in Tinseltown. Turnbull does a great job of incorporating a lot of great details about Hollywood at the dusk of silent movies and the dawn of the talkies into this book. Some of these items I knew about (Brown Derby, Coconut Grove, Schwab’s Pharmacy) while others I didn’t (like the Zulu Hut, which was a restaurant where the waiters were white guys in blackface).
The book contains a lot of celebrity cameos including Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, and Ginger Rogers. There are some real-life Hollywood figures that play a more integral role in the lives of the main characters – the most important being director George Cukor, actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Alla Nazimova, and Billy Wilkerson, founder of the Hollywood Reporter.
This blending of real-life people in a tale with fictional characters reminded me on a superficial level of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Another similarity this book has with that particular movie is it much more character-driven than plot-driven. Setting-wise, it’s closer to Scorcese’s The Aviator.
The first half of the book is lighter than the second half, which is during the Great Depression, and has the characters experience real-life tragic events such as the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake and the Monfalcone gambling ship that sank after it caught on fire in 1930.
Some of the best stuff toward the end of the book deals with the underground gay subculture in Hollywood and how reporters were trying to catch people like Cukor (he reads like a cross between Louis B Mayer and Paul Lynde) in compromising situations. This kind of thing assuredly occurred often but it isn’t something anybody talks about much these days so it was good information to learn while watching the characters try to get out of these jams was fun to read.
I had a couple of criticisms about the book, but they were fairly minor.
The first is that occasionally the year would just abruptly change by a year or two from one chapter to the next without warning. These transitions could have been a little more clear. Another is that there was a pretty big pickle that occurred near the middle of the book involving Gwendolyn that doesn’t really go anywhere. She disappears from the book for many chapters and then when she shows back up the resolution of this problem is just explained away with a few sentences. For something that had such a steady build-up over the course of the novel, it was disappointing to me.
I enjoyed the book overall. It moves at a brisk pace and has a lot of good information about Hollywood history and some interesting characters to experience it with.
For LMO’s Interview With Martin Turnbull About Old Hollywood and The Garden on Sunset Click Here
If You Are Interested In Reading Some Articles About The People And Places In This Book Then Check Out –
The Brown Derby – Click Here
Schwab’s Pharmacy – Click Here
The Cocoanut Grove – Click Here
Billy Wilkerson’s restaurant Ciro’s – Click Here